Women’s History Month: How Carol Blazejowski paved the way for female hoopers

Courtesy of Carol Blazejowski
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In recent years, women’s college basketball has picked up steam as stars like Sabrina Ionescu and A’ja Wilson have revolutionized the sport by garnering attention and support for their incredible talent.

Thirty years ago, that star was Carol Blazejowski.

“I grew up in a day and age where it was, for the most part, unacceptable to be a female athlete,” Blazejowski said. “I was a tomboy. I played sports, football, baseball, everything, with the boys.

“It wasn’t until I was 10 that I was introduced to the ’roundball’ and fell in love with it… You could practice it on your own. There weren’t any girls to play with back then. It was a time when there were no grassroots basketball programs for girls.”

Not only were there no grassroots programs for girls, but there wasn’t even a team at Carol’s high school until her senior year.

She entered college at a time when women’s basketball was just starting to get more publicity.

Even though the first women’s collegiate game was played in 1893 at Smith’s college, it wasn’t until 1972 that the first national intercollegiate basketball championship was held. That same year, Title IX came into play and demanded that schools fund women’s sports equitably. 

However, it still wasn’t getting utilized as it should have been. Title IX may have been a law, but people weren’t abiding by it, and scholarships still weren’t really happening, according to Carol. 

The New Jersey native decided on Montclair State University because it had a basketball team, it was a teacher’s college—so she could study physical education—and it was close enough to home that her parents could watch her play. 

When Carol got to Montclair in 1974, it was just a “little state championship.’ Her senior year, they were not only ranked, but made it all the way to the Final Four. 

“We gained a lot of media exposure, people were starting to take notice of me,” Blazejowski admitted. “There was a real buzz now around [women’s basketball], it was becoming a movement.”

Carol finished her career at Montclair as the all-time leading scorer in school history with 3,199 points. Her senior year she averaged 38.6 points per game and 9.9 rebounds, while ending with 95 assists and 92 steals. 

She even had the chance to play at Madison Square Garden in 1977, where she put up a record-setting 52 points against Queens College in front of 12,000 people.

“We were the story of the metropolitan area at the time,” Blazejowski smiled. “But, the game was at 10:30 in the morning. We thought, ‘Who’s going to come watch us play?’ There were 10,000 people who came to watch us at 10:30 in the morning.

“To me, the two stories were that we won—it’s always about team Ws—and the second piece was that I was in awe that we had so many people. I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d have that many people.”

Carol went on to win the first Wade Trophy for Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and was given the first USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year Award. In 1979, she led the USA women’s national team to a World Cup gold medal.

“You don’t realize until many years later,” Blazejowski answered, when asked about her groundbreaking career. “You’re grateful to have an opportunity to play. You know you’re creating a buzz. People are taking notice and watching you. It’s great, but you don’t realize until after the fact the impact you were making.”

Little did “the Blaze” know that she would make such a huge impact that it would land her a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. 

“That didn’t even enter my realm of imagination—being inducted into the Hall of Fame.” Blazejowski said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You can’t even express it in words; the emotional feeling you have is overwhelming. The sense of pride, humility, gratefulness, to know that you’re immortalized with the greats in our sport of all time is really special.”

Carol continued to champion women in sports, especially women’s basketball, after her time playing it. She joined the NBA and worked in the licensing department before getting more involved in the development of the WNBA. 

When the New York Liberty were formed, Carol was asked to be the general manager and vice president, going on to become the senior vice president and then president over a 13-year WNBA career.

“Our first home game at the Garden, the arena was almost sold out. I didn’t even watch the first quarter of the game, I was too mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the people there, all the faces, all the jerseys that had their names on them. 

“Naysayers said it wouldn’t last, but here we are 24 years later. Yes, it’s about winning games and generating revenue, but now you’re seeing real change for women’s athletes. Now, they’re role models. You can aspire to be in the WNBA. It’s so much more than just a game.”

Now, Carol is giving back what she never had growing up. She founded Blaze Hoop Crew, a training program for young players to learn the game of basketball. Her goal is to “build feeder systems for programs so they have the very basics of being a basketball player,” for both girls and boys.

Carol is hopeful for the future of women’s basketball, and stressed the importance of having patience that it will keep growing and succeeding.

“We forget how long it took men’s basketball to grow to where it is today,” Blazejowski emphasized. “I think we’re still waiting for that magic moment to happen and be there, but it’s going to take time and we need to have patience.”

She also prides herself on being not just an ambassador for basketball, but for all women’s sports.

“The gap is getting smaller, but it’s a big gap. As long as you’re moving forward and upward, it’s all you can hope for. Whether it’s me with young kids, or Diana Taurasi in the WNBA, or Sue Bird with the Olympics, it’s all our responsibilities. There’s no going back. We’re not going back. We’re here to stay.”

As the world celebrates Women’s History Month in March, it’s important to remember where we came from, so that we can focus and more fully understand where we’re going. And basketball is no exception.

“It’s important for new players and new generation to understand the history of the game, the players who came before them, who paved the way, and have a reverence for that. I wouldn’t have had what I had if the generation before me hadn’t done what they’d done. It’s important to know the past to have a better and fuller appreciation for the future.”

NEWS AND NOTES

– No surprise here! Sabrina Ionescu was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year for the third consecutive year. She finished the year as the NCAA career triple-double record holder with 26. 

– Another Three-peat for the Ducks! Oregon finishes as the regular-season Pac-12 champion for the third straight year. Oregon beat Washington 92-56 to win its 16th consecutive victory and to stay undefeated at home. 

– South Carolina also secured a regular season title with a 60-52 win over Texas A&M to complete an undefeated SEC season. 

– Northwestern became Big Ten champs with a win over Illinois, UConn secured its seventh consecutive AAC title and Baylor took home its 10TH STRAIGHT Big 12 title.

– The 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award were announced on March 3, with Oregon claiming three semifinalists and South Carolina notching two. 

The four finalists will be announced on March 20, and the winner will be named on April 4. 

– The NCAA committee released its second top-16 early reveal ahead of the selection show:

South Carolina, Baylor, Oregon and Maryland all nabbed No. 1 seeds, and regional assignments can be found here.

The top three remained the same from the first top-16 reveal in early February; however, Maryland joined the group by muscling its way from the eight overall seed in the first release to fourth, riding 14 straight wins.

– With regular season games finishing up over the weekend, March Madness begins as some teams face off in the first rounds of their conference tournaments. 

A few of the bigger conferences’ postseasons are underway, such as the ACC and SEC, while others like the Big 12 won’t begin until next week. If you want a look at every conference tournament, including start dates, top seeds, schedules, and more, check it out here

– If you’re already excited about the NCAA Tournament, don’t forget to tune in on March 16 when the NCAA bracket will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET during the selection show on ESPN. The tournament dates and schedules can be found here, along with past winners. 

– Fun Fact: While most of us can’t dunk no matter our age, Shaquille O’Neal’s daughter, Me’arah, is near dunking at the age of 13!!!

Player of the Week: Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard scored a team-high 24 points in her senior game on Sunday and finished No. 2 in all-time scoring for the team behind Sabrina Ionescu.

Play of the Week: Hailey Owens took a girl to TOWN on this crossover that left her opponent on the floor: